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Turning sour grapes into Champagne

By | Events, Francophone Fun, History | No Comments

If you clicked on this post, you probably have some idea of what champagne is. You might be able to recall the pleasant fizz of the bubbles or a particular sweet, light flavor. But do you know of the rich history and the unique details of production?

Region of Champagne is highlighted in red.

True champagne is produced only in the French region of Champagne in the Northeast. Since it is one of the north-most wine producing regions in france, the temperatures are often much lower than other wine-producing areas and so ripening of the grapes doesn’t occur as quickly and the grapes end up being a bit more acidic than their southern cousins. The wine-makers of history were not deterred by this challenge and simply made lemons into lemonade ( or, really, grapes into champagne.)

The metal muselet, used to keep the champagne from exploding.

The champagne we have today is a true result of centuries of collaboration, adjustment and refining. In 1662 Christopher Merrett discovered that adding sugar or molasses during a second fermentation could make it sparkling. Also in the mid-1600s glass-makers found a way to design bottles that could contain the pressure of the wine and the English found that using the traditional roman cork was more effective at holding in pressure than a cloth wrapped piece of wood that the French were using. In 1844 the muselet was invented to help contain the cork by Adolphe Jaquesson.

A portrait of Madame Clicquot and her grandchild.


In the early-1800s Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot made champagne a viable large-scale business possibility when she streamlined the process by inventing the riddling process and integrating it into the production process. She also was able to jump-start the marketing of her champagne when she managed to smuggle it to the Russian Court near the end of the Napoleanic wars when naval blockades were making commercial shipping almost impossible. Both her shrewd marketing and streamlining of the process caused the popularity of her product (and eventually all champagne) to sky-rocket.


Want a taste of what all that history has produced? Come to our Tastes and Toasts event at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, February 8! Tickets are $30 for members and $40 for non-members.

Read our interview with Sophie Loubière!

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Sophie Loubière



Sophie Loubière is a French journalist and writer who already published more than ten novels.
She is urrently working on a new one, Bloody Coffee and this one will be set in Chicago! Before listening to her next week, come read about her in our exclusive interview;

What got you interested in writing?

The unlimited power of the words, the infinite possibilities to tell a story, the unique parfume of liberty I can smell while I’m writing…

How do you choose what genre to write?

I don’t choose. The novel tells it on its own.

Where do you find inspiration?

In newspapers and in my own life, drawing my inspiration from what affects me intimately. A great source of ideas also comes from travels I’ve done, like the route 66 in 2011, and my visit to Chautauqua Institution, NY, in 2014. Nature and vestiges of the past moved me deeply.

How do you go about starting a novel?

I often start a novel from two new items I imbricate to make a story. Nothing is stronger than true stories.

What is the most difficult part about writing?

To stay concentrated on your work even if the world is collapsing around you – or the cat is jumping on the computer keyboard, erasing your chapter.

What is your favorite part about writing?

When a character escapes from me and starts to do things he’s not supposed to do, and when I’m done with my first chapter that I had rewritten about 100 times in two years.

What’s the first thing you do when you finish writing a novel?

With tears in my eyes, exhausted, I climb down the stairs, go to the living room to inform my husband and children about the good news. And they all ask what’s for dinner.

What is your favorite book to read?

(That’s a hard one!) The one I haven’t written yet.

Want to hear more from Sophie? Come to our free Avec L’Auteur event on Monday, February 6… in French!

Fun facts about Tales of Hoffmann

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Jaques Offenbach composed the opera The Tales of Hoffmann in the late 1870s. Before dying he apparently had a premonition that he would not survive to see his opera performed… He ended up being right as he died only four months before the opera was performed for the first time!
As a result, many different editions of his original score have been altered and this means that there are many different editions in existence. Recently there have been efforts to reinstate the opera to a close approximation of the original.

So, you want to know what this is about? Spoiler alert, it’s not exactly a fairy tale: the opera is made up of three stories of the loves of Hoffmann and each of these relationships are doomed to end in tragedy…

But before making any decision read what your host for the day, Executive Director of the Alliance Française de Chicago, Jack McCord, has to say about this opera: The Tales of Hoffmann…..an automaton who sings like a goddess, a lost love who sings too much, a beautiful Venetian courtesan who leaves Hoffmann hanging and then dies in his arms….VOILA some of the highlights of Tales of Hoffmann! Come see a stellar cast in this opéra fantastique for which its composer, Jacques Offenbach did not live to see the opening! Glorious music, all subtitled in English including the intermission feature.”

So… See what Offenbach couldn’t on Saturday, February 4!

When our Programs Director meets Dany Laferrière and tells us all about it!

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I met Dany Laferrière at the Salon du livre de Quebec in April 1986, where I was peddling my first publication, a collection of bad poems hesitating between French and English. I think it was called Turtleneck and Black Slacks. Nobody was showing much interest so I had plenty of time to walk around and check the competition.

Danny Laferrière was also promoting his first book, but he had a much better title: Comment faire l’amour à un nègre sans se fatiguer, or How to Make love to Negro Without Getting Tired. We talked and exchanged books. He signed a poster for me, showing him sitting barefoot on a park bench with his typewriter. His white high tops (pre-basketball star edition, just plain white canvas) are beside him on the bench. He looks pretty relaxed. Nez en l’air, you know what I mean? We saw each other again the next day and he told me he liked my poems, the ones in French, because he didn’t read English. I’ve just finished reading his first book again, and I still think what I thought then—that Quebec had never seen something like this before.

What hides behind the provocative title is a fast, funny and ferocious riff on sex, race, jazz, destroying all clichés and myths about young black men in its wake. Informed by Kerouac, Miller and Baldwin, Laferrière said he wrote Comment faire l’amour à un nègre sans se fatiguer in three weeks. It’s summer, it’s hot, and the narrator and his friend Bouba share an apartment on rue Saint-Denis in Montreal. The cross on top of Mont Royal shines through the night. Bouba lives on the sofa, quotes the Koran, and meditates to the sound of the Duke, Archie Shepp or Coltrane. Dinners of canned food and poulet créole are drowned with cheap wine, and the narrator’s effort to finish his novel are derailed by the successive visits of Miz Littérature, Miz Suicide, or Miz Carte du Ciel—to name a few.

Let’s be honest, this is a hard book to carry around in public, says a reader’s review.
Honest, brash, unhappy, new, says The Village Voice.

I saw Dany Laferrière for the second time in 2003 in Montreal. I had finished my transition to English and my first novel, Where the River Narrows, had just come out. I was a guest, like him, at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. He was sitting beside Maryse Condé, who was being honored. I did not have the courage to come up and say hello. Laferrière had published many books since we had first met, both in Quebec and in France. His novels had been made into films and he was also famous for his columns in the Montreal press. Although not barefoot this time, he still look relaxed; as demonstrated by the way he draped his arm over the top of the empty chair beside him. The way he watched the world go by.

I am about to meet Dany Laferrière again in Chicago. The little boy who spent his childhood speaking kreyol in the village of Petit-Goâve is now the first Haitian and the first Québécois to be named at the prestigious Académie française—an institution founded in the 1635 by Richelieu to safeguard the French language. He will be the first writer-in-residence at the Sofitel Magnificent Mile, where he will write about Chicago’s jazz scene. He will join us on Monday, February 13th at 6:30 p.m., here at the Alliance and he will tell us what he means when he says he is an écrivain américain —an American author.

I am looking forward to seeing him again…and I hope you are too!


Aimée Laberge


Pour en savoir plus: 25 repères lumineux sur le parcours d’un immortel.

French Loop to the rescue!

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What do you do if you want to learn French at the Alliance Française de Chicago but none of our classes fit your busy schedule or it’s an ordeal for you to visit us at 810 N Dearborn?

Never fear! The French Loop is here! We’ve designed this new addition to our family with busy professionals in mind. Now you can arrange a private or semi-private lesson at our convenient loop location at 53 W Jackson.

Join us when you can for our Grand Opening on Friday, January 27 between 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Enjoy a complimentary crêpe and beverage, meet your future French teacher and other students. You can also take a free placement and get a free one hour lesson upon sign up.

Due to space, confirmed registrations only. Please, register on our Facebook event by January 26th or call us at (312) 337-1070 !


Apple of the earth

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The potato arrived in Europe at the end of the 16th century with very little fanfare, yet it soon found its way into the hearts and stomachs of many as a staple food.

This journey to fame was not without a bit of turmoil. The veggie was even illegal in France from 1748 to 1772 due to concerns about them being poisonous!

When Antoine-Augustin de Parmentier, a medical army officer, was forced to eat pommes de terre as a captive of the Prussians he found that potatoes were not only edible but might actually have great nutritional value and so he decided to study them. Parmentier’s researched them extensively and was eventually able to convince the Paris Faculty of Medicine to formally declare the potato edible in 1772.

Even after this declaration many people didn’t believe they were safe to eat so Parmentier made many efforts to change public opinions. To do this he got some very powerful friends to help; He gifted Marie Antoinette potato flowers and she and Louis XVI wore them as accessories. What a shame we don’t have any pictures!

Today, fear of potatoes is long gone and people have found countless ways to transform the seemingly humble root into countless amazing dishes. One such dish, hachis parmentier, is named after Parmentier himself!

Come to the Alliance Française on Saturday, January 21 from 11:15 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. to learn some amazing potato recipes with Chef Madelaine Bullwinkel.


How music can aid in language learning

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Here at the Alliance Francaise we are always interested in learning about new ways to acquire language. So when we found this article we thought you could be interested too!

Cap Enfants, a network of nursery schools in France is taking a unique approach to develop the listening skills of toddlers. They believe that exposing children to different rhythms in infancy allows them to better understand languages in life.

This intent is related to a study by the Institute of Learning and Brain Science for the University of Washington that discusses the relationship between musical rhythms and language rhythms. The study looked at the neural responses of 9 month old infants after they were exposed to music. It found that infants exposed to music were more sensitive to changes in rhythm in both speech and music than infants who were not.
At the Cap Enfants,the centerpiece of the nursery playroom is occupied by a colorful igloo-like “La Bulle Musicale” that was designed to bathe the children in sounds from all angles. They hope that by exposing the children to a variety of sounds and rhythms early in life it might make it easy for them to be more perceptive of languages, both mother-tongue and otherwise. It was designed by a team made up of an early childhood educator and a sound engineer.

At the Alliance we love singing! Come see for yourself and enroll your child in our Chez Kids Academy classes. If you would just like to learn more about us, come to our Kids’ Open House on Saturday, February 4th.

To read more about Cap Enfants and the Bulle Musicale read the original article.

Last days for the AF Holiday Market!

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The Alliance Française de Chicago team is very happy to host its first Marché de Noël ! Before, between or after your classes, shop and enjoy our very unique gifts…:

Erald & Julie sell their now famous Savons de Marseille, pillow spray and other beauty products as well as some pieces of arts handmade by Erald!

Heïdi, our crochet instructor has worked hard to offer you some amazing handmade accessories; hats, tops, scarfs… She has everything you need to be ready for a harsh winter at Elements of Heidi.

If you want to treat one of your friends or relatives with some handmade and elegant piece of jewelry, I am sure you will be pleased to meet Raphaëlle and her extensive variety of necklaces!

Marie, our French seamstress, will be happy to present you lots of unique accessories for your home or yourself ; from pouches to cushions and including wallets, hot packs and Christmas ornament… even if you don’t know what you are looking for, I am sure she has it.

And finally, we will be happy to welcome Renée and Aimée surrounded by books ! French books, books about France, kids books, books to learns French… you name it, they will find it!


December 7th and 8th between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.
No reservation needed. Just drop by!


Are you planning to shop for Christmas gifts at a holiday market?
What is the best French present you have ever received/given?

Let us treat you to a FREE French class!

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And no, that’s not a joke!

‘Tis holiday season after all so treat yourself or your friends and family by signing up for our Guest program.

Call us (312) 337-1070 to register as a GUEST and attend any French class for FREE!*

That’s it! Easy enough right? And… did we mention it was FREE?


Currently a student? That’s good too! Refer a GUEST and get a $25 discount on your next class.**
Your guest can come to class with you or they can attend a separate course if they have a different level. Ask us about your level, we will tell you which class is best.


*This offer is valid only once. No exception. Students who have attended classes within the last year cannot apply for this offer.
**Current students can only refer one person per session. The subsequent discount cannot be added to other existing offers.

Coup de coeur… Les Pépites

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Dear students, dear friends, dear all of you…

When we see something we like, it’s hard to keep it to ourselves. That’s who we are at the Alliance Française de Chicago. We like to share!

So it’s our great pleasure to talk to you about the movie Les Pépites, a documentary that will be shown once (and only once!) at the Gene Siskel Film Center of Chicago, on December 10th at 11:15 a.m.


If you too you have a dream, this movie is for you.


The plot

In 1995, a retired French couple, Christian and Marie-France, come across the Phnom Penh (Cambodia) landfill full of hazardous waste, flies by the thousands and…hundreds of kids from 6 to 15, searching through the pile of garbage for food or anything good enough to sell.

Absolutely overwhelmed by this experience, Christian and Marie-France decide to start an association “Pour un sourire d’enfant” in order to provide food, basic care and education to these children. 20 years later they have given 10,000 kids the chance to dream as well…

Not convinced yet? Have a look to the trailer …

The info?

Les Pépites (2016, 88 min), by Xavier de Lauzanne
In French with English subtitles
December 10th at 11:15 a.m.
Gene Siskel Film Center of Chicago